Banlung, Ratanakkiri province – It was fourth-time lucky for Romah Y Bai, a Montagnard asylum-seeker who arrived in Phnom Penh with the final 26 asylum-seekers departing Ratanakkiri province under UN protection on Saturday.
On three attempts over three years to reach the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the 27-year-old said he was arrested by Cambodian authorities and deported back to Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Sporting a T-shirt with the words “be free” emblazoned in large blue letters and speaking in basic English, Romah Y Bai listed off the provinces, districts and dates of his three captures and the amounts of prison time spent in Vietnam after each deportation.
Captured in Mondolkiri province’s Koh Nhek district in July 2001: Three months in prison in Vietnam. March 2002, Mondolkiri’s Bou Sra district: Four months in prison. August 2003, Stung Treng province: Seven months in prison.
Seated on the twin-propeller airplane to Phnom Penh on Saturday and with a UNHCR identity card around his neck, the serial escape artist only had two words to say about his more recent good fortune: “Very happy.”
“I want freedom… In Vietnam no freedom. I want to help my people to live in Vietnam,” he said.
Romah Y Bai said his thoughts were now for his remaining family back in Vietnam.
“I will [miss] very much members of my family,” he said.
Also on board Saturday’s flight was Rocham Hl’inh, 39, and her four children, the youngest just three months old. Her husband had fled to Cambodia some months before and was, she hoped, already under UNHCR protection in Phnom Penh.
“I really want to meet him,” she said shortly before boarding the aircraft.
Saturday’s flight signaled the end of the UNHCR’s second mission to find and protect Montagnard asylum-seekers hiding in Ratanakkiri province.
UNHCR officials said on Friday that reports of asylum-seekers still in hiding in Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district will be raised with government officials in Phnom Penh. Also, UNHCR will contact Mondolkiri provincial officials to seek access to asylum-seekers reportedly hiding on the province’s remote border with Ratanakkiri.